Early in the fourth quarter, Ohio State junior linebacker Jerome Baker took a peek at the scoreboard and didn’t like what he saw. The No. 6 Buckeyes were down two touchdowns, and No. 2 Penn State had the ball.
Baker and his teammates had no one to blame but themselves.
Penalties, special-teams blunders, turnovers and miscommunication through the first three quarters coalesced into a two-touchdown deficit with 13:13 remaining in the game.
“I was just like give me, give us a break,” redshirt junior Sam Hubbard said. “Everything that could’ve gone wrong, went wrong and the score didn’t reflect how we were dominating on offense and defense and we just had to keep chipping away.”
From the opening kickoff, which running back Saquon Barkley returned 97 yards for a touchdown, the Buckeyes made difficult what would seem easy Saturday night at Ohio Stadium.
Penn State linebacker Koa Farmer caught a short kickoff and rumbled for a miraculous 59-yard return as the Buckeyes were unable to wrangle him and take him down. Ohio State even managed to go offsides after stuffing a kick return inside the 20-yard line.
The Buckeyes racked up 10 penalties for 79 yards, including four false starts. A late first half Hubbard sack was negated due to a face mask penalty. Quarterback J.T. Barrett was sacked twice in the first quarter.
“It wasn’t really getting down, it was just more frustrating because you have a lot of self-inflicted wounds,” left tackle Jamarco Jones said.
Twice, the Buckeyes believed they had interceptions, but both were overturned. In the second quarter, safety Damon Webb reeled in an interception in the end zone, but cornerback Damon Arnette was flagged for pass interference, placing the ball at the 6-yard line. Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley dove into the end zone on the following play.
Then in the third quarter, cornerback Denzel Ward came down with what was called an interception before the referees turned the play into a Nittany Lion touchdown due to duel possession after review.
“We knew we were killing ourselves, really,” Baker said. “We were shooting ourself in the foot.”
But during this barrage of self-inflicted misfortune, the number showed Ohio State was dominating. The Buckeyes finished the game with substantial leads in total yards (529-283), first downs (27-17), yards per play (5.2-2.6) and tackles for loss (13-6). Ohio State just could not seem to make a run and take the lead.
The Buckeyes held Barkley, a Heisman Trophy frontrunner, to 21 carries for 44 yards, 36 of which came on one touchdown run. Barrett, whom Meyer said played a near-perfect game, completed 33-of-39 passes for 328 yards.
“[In] the first three quarters, I can count a handful of plays that we looked like fools, and we have to get that fixed,” Meyer said. “But it wasn’t like we were getting pummeled. It was the opposite. We were playing very well against a very good team, but we had miscues that used to be uncharacteristic.”
And then, in less than 12 minutes, everything changed.
Ward blocked a punt. Barrett hit Dixon for not one, but two touchdowns. The Buckeyes defense bent, but did not break as the Nittany Lions drove 64 yards, and settled for a 24-yard chip shot field goal. Then, after trailing for more than 58 minutes, Barrett found tight end Marcus Baugh for a 16-yard touchdown which gave the Buckeyes a 39-38 lead.
But there was 1:42 remaining on the clock, more time than it took for the Buckeyes to score in any of its final three drives. Since the Buckeyes were avoiding kicking off to Barkley, kickoff specialist Sean Nuernberger hit a squib kick which set the Nittany Lions up with advantageous field position at their 36-yard line. Despite the Penn State field advantage, redshirt senior linebacker Chris Worley was never worried.
“We knew, just give us a chance to be in a position to stop them,” Worley said. “They didn’t really move the ball much on us. There were a couple big plays, penalties that just kept giving them life.”
Worley was right.
It took just four plays. Incompletion. Sack. Incompletion. Incompletion. Ohio State victory.
“I can’t even describe it because we just wanted it more,” redshirt junior wide receiver Terry McLaurin said. “Guys in tears on the sideline, because all we’ve been through as a team and as individuals culminated in this moment. A lot of people probably counted us out during this game, but we believed in each other and we got the job done.”
Over Ohio State’s final three drives, the home team averaged 15 yards per play and needed just 12 offensive plays to put up three touchdowns, coming back from a 15-point deficit. The momentum shift did not happen all at once, but took a concreted play after play effort, center Billy Price said.
“We never gave up, honestly,” Baker said. “We knew we were capable of beating those guys. Great team, but we definitely come up to win.”
Sure, Ohio State had no one to blame but themselves for the early deficit.
But, after taking down the Nittany Lions, the Buckeyes also had no one but themselves to credit for the victory.